Monday, April 04, 2005

Writing about someone still living

A comment was posted in the Jan. 27 blog on fear that goes like this:

"Both you and Anne Lamott talk about writing as if your parents are dead. In my novel in progress, I write about my mother as if she’s dead. The problem is that she’s very much alive, we’re estranged, and the mother character in my novel is portrayed in a negative light. The fact that she’s a mother is an important aspect of the story, so I can’t just give her a sex change. If the book gets published at some point, I’m afraid of litigation. I’m not sure what to do. Any advice?"

Where to begin??!

So many authors who've written about dicey themes or based their fiction on someone still living have come on my show and when I asked how they did it, mostly they said, "I wrote it as if it would never be published."

I would say, just write it and worry about it later. By the time you reach the end, it may be a very different book, so don't censor yourself now. Wait. And write.

I don't know if you're writing it in the first person. If so, perhaps doing it in the third person would change it enough.

Some writers wait till the person is no longer living, if it's that dicey. I'm working on a project right now where I'm encountering the same worry, but the story is important enough to me that I'm writing and putting off worrying till later.

So again, I'd say, go for it. You need to write this book, so worry about it after you have a final draft.

30 comments:

Lucinda said...

This is an especially good and important topic and your advice sound. But this type of writing seems more theraputic for the writer than illuminating for the reader. Is this a new genre. Or am I way off base?

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

So many books have characters based on real people. For instance, from the nonfiction by Jonathan Franzen, and by the essays he's written, it would seem that there are characters in The Corrections that are based on people from his life--namely his father.

What I understood the comment to mean was that she was writing a novel with a character based on her mother, and that's what I was responding to.

Perhaps Dajwap will respond soon....

Carolina said...

What I think Lucinda is asking is is there a larger truth about writing about a painful relationship than simply getting it off one's chest.

Lucinda said...

Yes- that's sort of what I was trying to say.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

Well, if it's a novel one is writing, there had better be a larger truth--or theme--at work. Otherwise the work will seem self-indulgent. Now, memoir is pretty much the same: The best memoirs have a story arc. Slow Motion, but Dani Shapiro, is one of the best memoirs of recent times and it has the shape and texture of a novel. But if one is simply writing to get something off his or her chest, then better to journal about it, and deal with it that way.

Regina said...

I think Ann Lamotte says she gives her target character an embarrassing physical attribute so he would be reluctant to sue. The same could be true for a woman.

Lucinda said...

Well, not exactly the same.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

I would say most people would never sue. A few years back there was a newstory about Terry McMillan who was sued by an ex for being portrayed in one of her books (Waiting to Exhale perhaps....I'm not sure. Anyway, he lost the lawsuit because the judge deemed the representation to be accurate to him and not libelous.

Most people we write about will never read our work. Most of my family has not read about my work--even a beloved cousin who's been told I wrote about him.

I just wouldn't worry about it until you have a final draft.

Carolina said...

Is there such a thing as a final draft and how do you know it?

dajwap said...

In response to Lucinda and Caroline, the question was about a character who shares some traits as the real person. A memoir piece would fall under a different category.

Regina, thanks for the smile. I know Anne Lamott suggests giving the character a tiny little penis—and I haven't ruled that out.

Carolina said...

But seriously how did you know when you wrote the final draft of your book?

Regina said...
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Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

You know you've written a final draft when you've worked and worked and put the manuscript through at least a couple of passes--at least--and you've let your critique group or writing buddy read it and give you feedback and you've taken that feedback and put it to use. When you've done all you can do and feel you can do no more, you've got a final draft.

Carolina said...

What I mean is now that your book is published would you change anything about it if you could. Do you see what I mean?

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

Would I change anything....that's an interesting question. There are minor things I might change, certain sentences I'd tweak, or chapters that seem a bit on the short side that I'd make longer. But I'm happy to say that I loved working with my editor at Harcourt--I really did--and found that her work only made my writing better. Same with the copyeditor. I hear stories of authors railing against their editors and I never felt that way. There's one thing I slipped back in that my editor repeatedly wanted me to delete. But that's it.

That said, my book went through a zillion drafts from when I began it eight years prior to being published. And while the time it took became occasionally depressing, in the end, I'm glad it went through the drafts that it did.

I have unpublished novels that went through a few drafts and then I said, Never mind! You just never know where a work is going to end up--on the shelf of a bookstore or in the garage, buried.

Regina said...

Now you've peeked my curiosity. What is it that you slipped back in that your editor wanted deleted?
C'mon.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

Oh, it's a very teensy thing. In the chapter called "Walk! Refresh! Have Fun!" I write about what I'm wearing on a particular day I go walking. She wanted me to take out the YOU DON'T KNOW ME teeshirt but I kept putting it back in. People in my critique group loved that and so did I. Sort of summed me up.

Regina said...

I just reread the "bootlegged" chapter. How did being "first runner up" in the prom queen competition effect your life. I didn't even come close!

Carolina said...

Regina, I really don't think we're supposed to ask questions like that, are we Ms DeMarco-Barret?

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

Actually, it was just the teeshirt that was bootlegged. The chapter was going in, regardless.

Ah, being first runner up for my 9th grade prom....well, it gave me a front row seat to the politics of socializing, and made me realize (again) how uncomfortable I was to be the focus of things. I think I was also amazed, that there were kids that liked me that much.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

Carolina...Sure, ask away!

Regina said...
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Carolina said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

Hey, people, be nice, now. No need to get upset. I'd like the vibes here to remain good. 'Kay?

Regina said...
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Carolina said...
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Carolina said...

I wish to apologize to anybody I may have offended but expecially to Ms DeMarco-Barrett. My behavior was inexcusable.

pishydish said...

wow barbara--my interest is super intrigued at what is not on the page--which leads me to thinking, what if in various parts of my novel i had a blank page, but in the middle i put "author has removed page" and just kept going on--i could easily gain some pages and write less that way. But the reader might be P.O.'d--just like i am now. I will give you a dollar or slice of marinated tofu to let me know the whole coversation of this thread.

I have written about my dad on many occasions, not the man he is today, but the man he was--a bad father and alcholic--he makes a great character in my books. But when i let him read my chapters, he has gotten upset that i keep using his past against him. I have had to repeatedly tell him, it is just a character in the novel and I love him and don't think of him that way--and if i did, he sure as hell wouldn't be in my life. He understands now, but it was tough. There are other characters i have written about and i am nervous at what will be said when they read what has been written, but i do not let that inhibit me at this point in the writing. Writing for me, in many ways, is cathartic and therapeutic--it would be a disservice to myself as a human being to keep it stored in.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

Oh, Pishydish, it was no big, big deal, just tempers flaring a bit.

As for writing about your dad, yes, if that's what you must write, then that's what you must write. Though showing him...I'm curious why you did, since you didn't take it out after you showed him and saw that it upset him.

I know authors who've shown manuscripts to parents and others close to them who said they did it because if that person was going to get upset with what they wrote, then they'd just take it out.

Anonymous said...

Regarding your question about how to write dicey stuff in your book about people who are still alive, I have done it in my memoir (to be published soon) by 1)writing under a pen name and 2) changing the names of all the characters in my book. But the incidents and events and statements in the story are true: they all really happened.